Sunday, December 11, 2011

Morocco: Part I - Marrakech

Dear Readers,

You may find that this blog post is more opinionated than some of my other posts.  Traveling excites me because it allows me to experience little bits of cultures which are foreign to me.  Experiencing comes first, and processing what you observe comes second.  There's a fine line in travel writing between stereotyping groups and cultures, and simply making sense of what you have actually experienced.  I feel that it is important to think about what I have observed in each place and how different locations make me feel.  Additionally, it's probably more interesting for you to read about a personal travel experience than a simple detail of what I did each day.  I'll give you both.  Happy reading!

Woman Working - Argan Women's Oil Cooperative
As I have said many times, I love traveling because it is the best way to peek into different lifestyles.  Morocco definitely satisfied this thirst to see somewhere unfamiliar.  Arriving in Morocco felt like landing on another planet.  In a conservative, patriarchal society, all the rules are different.  Many of the few women who worked selling things in tourist shops had their entire faces covered.  Our guide explained this to us by saying that many of the women, "wanted to stay anonymous and avoid being seen working."

Tourists are not required to wear all the coverings that women living in Morocco wear, but not being covered means that everyone stares at you.  It was difficult to tell whether the stares were disapproving or if they were just curiously acknowledging that we were different.  Not knowing how people are going to react to you when they openly stare at you is unsettling.  We were told that as long as you stay within the very populated center square of the old city and don't stay out late at night, it's safe enough.  The more places I see, the more I find myself trying to compare and contrast locations and customs.  I try not to think in terms of "better" or "worse;" rather, I prefer to observe and see how things work.  I accept that different systems work in different places because different groups of people live there.  That being said, I think it would suck to be a woman living in a society as patriarchal as what I observed in Marrakech.  I love to write happy, cheerful things since this blog is public and on the internet, but honestly, I really don't think I would last for an extended period of time in Morocco.  But don't worry, I assure you that I thoroughly enjoyed my 6-day vacation.
Tourists are not required to wear the traditional coverings.
The general ambiance in Marrakech felt so different than in Madrid because in comparison with such a loud, lively, outgoing city, Marrakech seemed contained, reserved, and regulated.  I think both of these environments are extremes, given that the uninhibited lifestyle in Madrid only rests during the siesta, whereas life in Marrakech is much more hesitant.  Most of the other places I have visited fall somewhere in between.  London, for example, seemed practical, proper, and polished to me - it wasn't a crazy party, but it wasn't restrictively conservative either.  Using London as a midpoint on this spectrum, I think most of the places I have visited would fall close to London, or a bit towards Madrid.  Guatemala would be closer to Marrakech.  The cities in Israel would fall between Madrid and London, and also between London and Marrakech, but closer to London because there are some cosmopolitan, modern cities there, and other smaller cities there, which preserve a historical sense.  Boston and Chicago would fall somewhere between London and Madrid - probably closer to London.   By the way, this spectrum isn't strictly political, social, economic, or anything like that.  It's based solely on the general ambiance I observed in each place.

A somewhat troublesome thought that struck me while I was traveling in Morocco was how nonsensical it seemed that people frequently compare Islamic societies with the society in Israel.  From what I have seen of each, they seem to have very little, or almost nothing, in common.  What I saw last January in Israel was free, modern, frank, and accepting.  Israel is totally with it in terms of state-of-the-art technology.  In contrast, Morocco seemed restricted, less developed, constricted, aggressive, desperate, and tense.  From my experiences traveling in these two very different places, I cannot understand why people compare them as if they are similar.  I do understand that not everyone has the means to travel to both places to create first-hand experiences.  If you're in that group, then I think it's twice as important to do your research so you know what you're talking about if you like to compare societies out loud.  If you're curious about my perspective after reading this paragraph, you should know that I am not a hugely religious person.  I just like to observe different cultures and make sense of them as best as I can, relative to each other when possible.

Day 1- Thursday, December 1, 2011

When Catherine, Cecilia, and I arrived at Menara Airport in Marrakech, our guide met us at the baggage claim and drove us to our Riad, a guesthouse/hostel in the old part of the city.  One of the first things we noticed about Marrakech was that there are stray cats everywhere.  One of these cats followed us into the Riad, and then into our room.  The Riad was not heated, and it was unseasonably cold.  We thought it was going to be warm, and didn't pack correctly.  We ended up wearing five or six shirts each day.  The climate is very dry, like a desert, so there is a huge amount of temperature variation during each day. At night, we froze - I usually slept in my hat, gloves, and all the clothes I had brought with me.  During the middle of the day, the temperature rose to about 65 or 70 degrees Fahrenheit for a few hours, and we defrosted.  Since it's not typically very cold there, most of the restaurants were either outside or didn't have a door that closed, so we were basically outside for 6 days.

Day 2 - Friday, December 2, 2011

Breakfast at the Riad
For breakfast each morning, we had square-shaped crepes with jelly or butter on the terrace at the Riad.  We were also served orange juice, which looked fantastic, but I wasn't sure if it would be safe to drink since we cannot drink the water in Morocco.  I remembered getting sick in Belize and Guatemala, and was not eager to repeat the experience.  So I took a photo of the orange juice and drank the sugary mint tea, which is very popular in Marrakech.

Mint Tea near Imlil
Argan Oil Women's Cooperative
On our first day in Marrakech, our tour was scheduled to visit Imlil, a village in the High Atlas Mountains.  On the way there, we stopped to tour the Argan Oil Women's Cooperative, where we saw women extracting oil from nuts, which would later be used to make cosmetics and cooking oil.  The factory smelled wonderful because of all the roasting nuts.  After one of the women explained how they extracted and used the oil, she brought us to their gift shop.  They had this really cool lipstick which started out green, but turned red once it touched skin.  They were also selling oils for your skin in a bunch of different scents.  It was like perfume, but much greasier.  We all tried samples.


A bit farther up the mountain, we made another stop to ride camels.  Well, actually they were dromedaries.  Two people can ride together on a camel, but only one person can ride on a dromedary.  On the Birthright trip to Israel last January, we rode camels, and we were told that camels are no longer used for transportation there - it's just an enjoyable tourist attraction.  Quite differently, dromedaries are actually still used for transportation sometimes in Morocco.  Several times, we saw people riding dromedaries and donkeys around the mountains there.  We even saw some dromedaries crossing the street while we were on our way to the airport on our last day.  Another interesting difference is that camels roar when they stand up and dromedaries don't.  Or maybe it's just more difficult to stand up when two people are sitting on your back than one.  I think their heads are shaped a bit differently too, but both have huge, strong teeth, and they chew by moving their bottom jaw in a circular motion to grind their food like a mortar and pestle.  Before I went on the trip, my mom asked me to video how a dromedary stands/sits, because my explanation of how they fold and unfold wasn't very clear.  Enjoy the video!
Once everyone had ridden the dromedaries, we were served mint tea, and then we continued up the mountains into Imlil.  Actually, before we went up to Imlil, we stopped in a restaurant to use the bathrooms, which turned out to be those funny holes in the ground with places for your feet.  Not my favorite.  Let's just call it an "experience."  Closer to the village, we got out of our tour van so we could hike the rest of the way up.  I know I said I was done hiking in mountains because of the accident back in September, but sometimes you just have to go with the flow.   This hike wasn't difficult.  On the way up, we passed some mountain-side shops which were selling woven rugs, hand painted bowls, and jewelry.  The view from high in the mountains was beautiful.

We stopped at a different Riad to eat lunch, our first real Moroccan meal.  We were delighted to be presented with a beautiful platter of tagine and an equally aesthetic dish of cous-cous.  The food tasted even better than it looked.  For a first experience with Moroccan spices and cuisine, it was a good one!
Shoes for Sale
Tagine Dishes for Sale
The evening was free from our tour, so we went out shopping in the Souk, a giant market with hundreds of stands selling tagine dishes, shoes, purses, jewelry, and other touristy things.  The whole place was like a maze, and we had a great time wandering through the aisles and browsing.  The owners of the stands are really aggressive - they continually try to force you to buy things and trick you into negotiating prices with them.  You have to be so blunt in rejecting their offers sometimes that it almost feels rude.  But if you are too polite, as I often am, you get sucked into bargaining for something you don't even want to buy.  Once you get used to this, it's not bad.  You feel sort of accomplished if you get the price of something down low enough.  Cecilia is probably the best bargainer I've ever seen.  She usually started by offering 1/4 of the price they asked, which was reasonable since we all knew the seller's starting price was hugely marked up.  A few times, we would tell them their price was too high and that we weren't going to buy whatever it was.  Then we'd leave, be halfway down the next street, and the seller would come chasing after us to agree to the original price we had asked.  They really, really, really wanted to sell their products I guess.

A shop in the souk

The souk was filled with copies of designer purses, sunglasses, and watches.  The sellers would shout at us, "We sell original fakes!  Good copies!"  I tried to ask what exactly an "original fake" was, but unfortunately the seller didn't speak enough English or Spanish to explain, and I don't know more than a few words of French or Arabic.  Generally, I don't like to buy copies of designer items if I'm not very sure that it's a perfect copy.  However, we did stop into one of these shops and buy something, but I won't tell you what, or you'll know it's a fake when you see it.  ;-)

The other interesting thing about the souk was that the sellers were continually listening and trying to figure out what language we were speaking.  They would shout at us in French, English, and Spanish, in hopes of getting our attention.  Many shouted, "America, America," at me and Catherine.  They also screamed, "Japan," at Cecilia, who is actually from Hong Kong, and didn't really appreciate their assumption.  Overall, the sights, sounds, and smells of the souk were an exciting, sensory overload, and the shopping experience was totally fun.  I bought a hand-painted dish, a bracelet, a hat, and a few other items.  To take a break from bargaining with the vendors, we sometimes, we paused to drink ginger tea and eat pastries at the little food stands.  I thought about buying a tea pot and glasses, but I worried they would break on the flight.

For dinner, we ate outside at the food market in the souk.  There, we ordered tagine and cous-cous, and we also tried a dish called pastilla.  Mistakenly, we ordered it as a dessert since it came with powdered sugar.  It's actually an appetizer.  Pastilla is a circular, flaky crust, filled with chicken, and topped with powdered sugar.

The craziest thing about the souk, which we noticed immediately, was that motorcycles speed through the little, winding aisles of the market.  You constantly have to jump out of their way or get hit.  The entire scene is really chaotic because there aren't lanes in this area for the motorcycles.  Sometimes, even cars try to fit through the little pathways, and then you have to leap into a store in order to avoid getting hit.  Then you find yourself in a store trying not to get sucked into bargaining for something. The video below isn't in the souk, the place is pretty similar.

Day 3 - Saturday, December 3, 2011

Decorated walls at Museum Dar Si Said
The next morning, we woke up to eat our usual breakfast of square crepes and mint tea on the terrace of the Riad, while trying desperately to defrost ourselves.  Literally, I wore all the clothes I had brought with me every single day...and then peeled off a few layers during the few warm hours in the middle of the afternoon.  The first activity of the day was to see the Museum Dar Si Said, which is a museum of Morocco's history.  We saw some artifacts that were used long ago in Marrakech, and our guide explained some of the traditions about marriage customs there.  We were shocked (grossed out/horrified?) to learn that the family literally tries to check if the woman is still a virgin before allowing her to marry.  Invasive?  Unjust?  Creepy?  Of course, there's no check for a man.  Surprise, surprise.  The guide told us that though they still keep up with this custom, sometimes they find ways to fake it.  When he saw how surprised we all were about the whole thing, he tried to downplay his explanation, but of course by that point, we were all totally curious and had tons of questions.

Off that topic, our guide also told us that there are two distinct groups of people living in Morocco: Berbers and Arabs.  The guide told us that he is a Berber, and that many of the Berber villages are in the Atlas Mountains.  The language they speak is also called Berber.  He explained to us that many of the people living in the cities, such as Marrakech, are Arabs, who speak Arabic.  French is an official language of Morocco because of the 40 (ish) year French colonization of Morocco.  Instead of rejecting the language when the French were kicked out, they held onto it because it is useful for their growing tourism industry.

After leaving the museum, we went back to the main square to see snake charmers and the dentist.  On the way, we passed a public oven, where people from the neighborhood were bringing bread dough, and dropping it off.  A man lined up all the breads in the huge oven, and the people paid him, agreeing to come back later and pick up their cooked bread.  It was really interesting to see that every family had made their flat, round bread in exactly the same shape and size.

Seeing the dentist was...well...I've already judged things too much, so I'll just tell you what I saw.  The dentist sat at a little table outside in the main square.  He had a tool in his hand that looked like a pair of pliers.  On the left side of the table, was a pile of about 300 semi-rotted, human teeth.  The guide told us they never use novocaine.  On the right side of the table, he had lined up dentures that he was making.  I'm not sure if he was putting rotten teeth from his pile into the dentures or not.  Dentures are supposed to be fitted exactly to your mouth, so I'm not really sure how you could successfully buy a proper denture (pre-made) outside in a market.

Snake Charmer

The snake charmers were really cool.  It was just like in the movies.  One man played music on an instrument that looked a speck like a recorder, and the snake raised its head to as if it were listening (being charmed?).  We all got to hold a snake, and our guide paid the charmers so we could take photos.

Later, we went to the Jardin Majorelle, a tranquil garden with spiky cacti, skinny bamboo trees, and brightly painted flower pots.  The group took cabs there, and the guide made a point of telling each cab driver the address himself.  He told us that a man has to give the address in a cab there, and implied that we could otherwise be kidnapped.  Not really what we wanted to hear as the driver sped away.  But we arrived.  Inside the garden, there were a bunch of European tourists, and to be unfortunately honest, that made us a lot more comfortable.  It seemed that we always had to be "on guard" walking around Marrakech, and it made us kind of tense.  When traveling, different places allow you to notice different things.  If safety isn't an issue, you're free to enjoy scenery, museums, performances, and focus on what you're seeing.  If safety is a concern, you obsess over it.  Regardless of what activity you're at, personal safety is always on your mind.  I don't want to paint an dramatic, negative picture of my experience, but I do want to portray how I honestly felt.  I wanted to travel to somewhere really different and have a new experience, and I definitely got what I wanted.

Jardin Majorelle
Anyways, back to the garden.  We enjoyed the enormous leaves on some plants, and the tiny spikes protruding from the different cactus species.  Some plants had waxy surfaces on their leaves in order to minimize transpiration (evaporation of water from a plant), which is a classic adaptation to living successfully in a very dry climate.  Many people had etched their names into the bamboo trees.  We did not etch anything into the trees, because we thought it might be disrespectful and weren't sure if it would harm the tree.

Spice Market

Later that afternoon, we toured a spice market, one of the things I had been most excited to see!  The spice market was a bit like an apothecary in that they sold powders and creams for everything: wrinkles, cellulite, under-eye bags, acne, sinus congestion, softer skin, etc.  I bought a bit of the stuff for congested sinuses, but then got a sinus infection (upon returning to Madrid) and forgot to try it.  I sort of just took my antibiotic and went to sleep for as long as I could.  I'll try it next time.  They also sold mint leaves so you could make mint tea.  The coolest part was all the spices for cooking.  The spices were stored in large, cylindrical containers, and then patted firmly into a heaping cones on top.  It looked just like all the views in the Morocco postcards.  The owner of the shop explained a bit about some of their main spices to us, and I decided to purchase three to try.  The first one was red, and it is a combination of 35 spices, which can be used on all meats and vegetables, but not fish.  It's one of the tagine spices - I tried cooking chicken with it last week, and it was delicious.  The second was light brown, and it is a combination of 4 spices.  It is for fish or vegetables.  I have not tried it on salmon yet because I just got back from Amsterdam/Paris/Barcelona and need to go grocery shopping.  The third is yellow, and it gives a lemon curry flavor to vegetables.
Spice Market
Before leaving the spice market, we were given kits to bring with us to the hammam bath.  Inside the kit was a soap/gel, a pumice stone, a scrubbing glove, and a disk in a colored wrapper that we never figured out how to use.  We went back the the Riad, dropped off all our stuff, grabbed bathing suits, and headed for the bath.

Going to a hammam bath was the single most uncomfortable experience of my entire life.  I realize that's a big statement to make at the age of 22, but I'm sticking with it.  I can't believe I survived this.  The tour company, SnowOrSand, billed the bath as more of a spa experience.  Lies, all lies.  The guide dropped us off at the door, telling us, "They'll help you.  Just go in."  So we, six awkward Americans, went in.  Clutching our little hammam bath kits from the spice market, we were very prodded and shuffled into this public bathing room like a herd.  We expected to see tubs, or some element of privacy, or really anything but what we found before us.  In the room, about fifteen naked women sat on the floor and scrubbed each other.  The floor was covered in water.  I tried not to think about the sanitation issues with communal bath water.  We had no idea what to do since no one explained anything to us, so the six of us awkwardly sat down in a circle, and tried not to look around.  Eventually one of the women came up to us.  She and her friend had apparently decided to scrub each of us.  By scrub, I mean scrub so hard that it hurt - in order to remove dead skin.  They literally make you lay down on this wet floor and scrub you.  Having no idea what else to do, one at a time, we got scrubbed by these women.  They thought it was weird that we were wearing bathing suits, and kept trying to remove them.  Each of us took about ten minutes to get cleaned, so it wasn't even over quickly.  I was last.  It was kind of traumatic.  I like to wear clothes for the specific purpose of not being naked.  I also really like my personal space, and having a naked woman scrub off my dead skin is WAY too close for comfort.  They used the soap/gel to wash us, then scrubbed really hard, and then threw buckets of water at us to wash away the soap.  I'm not sure if I felt cleaner or dirtier after going to the hammam bath.  Afterwards, we went straight back to the Riad and I took a shower.  A private shower.  By myself.  Without getting scrubbed by one of those naked woman.

Back at the Riad, the three of us sat down and were like, "WTF was that?!!"  We decided that it was part of the cultural experience of visiting Morocco, and we were interested to participate one time to see what it was like.  Emphasis on one.  We discussed our observation that these women were completely comfortable being naked and exposed to each other in the hammam bath, but would cover their skin from head to toe if they were outside.  It seemed as if the bath was almost like a release from all the rigid restrictions placed over them by the patriarchal way of life there.  We noted that in the US, nakedness for bathing was really a private thing, but that we probably wouldn't hesitate to throw on a miniskirt or form-fitting outfit to go out to a bar.  It's sort of opposite, but not nearly as extreme.  Anyhow, I had my once-in-a-lifetime hammam bath experience, and I survived...barely.

Day 4 - Sunday, December 4, 2011

The next morning, we ate our crepes and mint tea as usual, and went downstairs to meet our guide, who wanted to know how we liked the hammam bath.  He told us he goes, "about once per week because it's so relaxing."  Of course, we wanted to be polite since we were visitors in his world, and we had in fact come to Morocco to see and experience a different way of life.  We just said it was a surprising and an interesting way to bathe.

Carving Wooden Toys
That day, we went to more different outdoor markets, and saw people hand-crafting the things we import to the US without pausing to think about who makes them.  We saw one young man artfully carving plaster blocks to hang on walls for decoration.  Farther into the aisles, another young man was cutting out leather for soles of sandals.  A third dyed the leather blue to color the sandals.  Another carved wooden toys with his spinning knife powered by his foot.  It took all of these people almost no time to produce one unit of whatever they were each making.  It was sad to realize that it is cheaper to make things by hand there than to mass produce them by machine.  Continuing on, we saw another man whose job was to toss ashes into a fire to heat water for a hammam bath.

Carving Wall Decorations
After seeing this, we really believed that all the dishes in the souk were hand painted, and that the leather shoes were probably actually hand made.  I bought a dish that had been painted in rose hues and with patterns carved to complement the painted details.  Had I have had more time, I would have inquired about two custom made pairs of extra narrow sandals - one for me, and one for Mom.
My Dish
Koutoubia Mosque
Later that day, Cecilia, Catherine, and I walked over to view the Koutoubia Mosque.  Tourists are forbidden from entering mosques, so we explored the outside of the building.  Five times a day, a call to prayer is projected over megaphones so that you can hear it from wherever you are in the city.  It's really loud.  Each call lasts for about 30 seconds, and according to our guide, the person doing the call always says the same thing.  Someone in our tour group remarked that this type of call to prayer seems really forward and invasive, but I suppose it's not that different than putting up a huge sculpture of a cross, or a different religious symbol, by the entrance to a town.  Both seem to claim that everyone there belongs to that religion.  You can hear part of the call to prayer at the beginning of the second video that is posted in this blog.

After looking at the outside of the mosque, we decided to visit another museum and explore a bit.  Unfortunately, some creepy guy kept bothering us, claiming that we were close to the Jewish Quarter of Marrakech, and that he could show us where the old synagogue was.  We all thought it would be really cool it see what a synagogue was like there, so we cautiously decided to check it out.  The guy led us down some weird little streets, which because less and less populated as we went.  Eventually, we realized that we were definitely not in anything that could pass as a Jewish Quarter at all, and that this guy was just lying.  We realized this when it became obvious that we were probably going to get locked into the sketchy looking building in front of us if we continued, we ran away.  Fortunately, we escaped.  I hate to speculate about what could have happened otherwise.  Very shaken up, we sprinted back to our Riad and stayed there for a while.  I have debated with myself over whether or not to put this experience in the blog post.  I don't want it to overshadow the rest of the trip, but I feel that it is important to include since it happened.

Day 5 - Monday, December 5, 2011

We decided to take a day trip to Essouira at the recommendation of Cecilia's host family.  I wrote about Essouira in a separate post.

Day 6 - Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On our last day in Marrakech, we did a bit more shopping early in the souk, and then we caught a cab to the airport.  One the way to the airport, we were surprised to see dromedaries crossing the street along with the other traffic.  Although we heard that they are still used for transportation here, it is still interesting to see them around the city.
Necklaces for Sale in the Souk
In selecting a travel destination, you have to think about what you want to see, and what you want to do.  In this case, I wanted to see a very different lifestyle and go somewhere outside my comfort zone.  This trip was not intended to be about sitting at a beach or seeing theater performances.  Morocco was a great choice for me to see a way of life about which I knew very little, and I appreciate what I learned there.

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting view on life in Morocco. I'm glad that you had the opportunity to go, to have a great experience, and to come back safely!